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Book Binding in Historical China since the Time of Bamboo and Wooden Slips

Xu Shen of the Eastern Han (25-220) wrote in his Shuowen Jiezi 說文解字 (Explaining Phrases and Expounding Characters) that “texts written on bamboo or silk are called books.” It may thus be inferred that bamboo slips, wooden strips, and silk scrolls with in-scribed and written texts are the primitive forms of the Chinese book. Bamboo slips and wooden strips are hard, and when tied together in sequence with two lines of cords they become jiance 簡策 or 簡冊, or books in bound tablets. Silk, on the other hand, is light and soft, and pieces can be horizontally sewn together at the edges. One wooden roller would then be attached to one end to form an axis around which the scroll can be rolled up and unrolled, making it a variant form of early books. This explains why the character juan 卷 (meaning “roll”) was applied to count the number of rolls a title was composed of in historical times.

To prevent damages to the texts, the first two slips of the jiance, the zhuijian 贅簡, and the top margin of the juan, the tiantou 天頭, were purposely left blank. An additional labeling slip attached to the front upon which the title of the work was written, the jian 箋 or qian 簽, served as an identifier, and the entire work was protected by a wrapper, the zhi 帙 (袠). It may be concluded that in China it was on the basic requirements for preservation and utility that book binding techniques began to develop.

The manufacture of paper took an unprecedented leap in the early 2nd century, and paper began to act as a substitute for bamboo slips, wooden strips, and silk fabrics, becoming a common writing and painting medium. The new material was light in weight and more convenient to carry about, and prior to the invention of woodblock printing the book bind-ing format of paper rolls, considered to have been identical to that of calligraphic works and paintings, spread quite rapidly throughout the land. The paper roll was followed by such binding styles as “pasted-leaves,” “inner stitched,” “sutra (jingzhe 經摺),” and “whirlwind.” Not only did the emergence of these binding techniques mark the end of the age of bamboo and wooden slips, it also exemplified the evolution, out of reading and preservation needs, of the physical appearance of books. By the 9th century woodblock printing had matured, and along with it came the switch from paper rolls to flat sheets of leaves, resulting in the “butterfly” and “wrapped back” binding styles. The “Sanskrit” binding applied to scriptures written on palm leaves, introduced from Southeast Asia, was used on works of the ethnic minorities as well. During the Qing dynasty, the approach of binding books with stitches was thought to be more economical and books thus bound would last for a long time, and what has become known as “stitched binding” was the prevalent technique employed by book binders. As opposed to today’s books of western-type binding, the so-called yangzhuangshu 洋裝書, works of stitched binding are now synonymic to antiquarian books.

Daming Renxiao Huanghou Quanshanshu

Daming Renxiao Huanghou Quanshanshu
Book of Exhortation for Good Deeds by the Empress Renxiao of the Great Ming

Written by Empress Xu (Ming dynasty)

Small-type imprint of the Ming court of 1405

Empress Xu (1362-1407) was the daughter of the Ming Dynasty’s founding member General Xu Da (1332-1385). She selected words that encourage good deeds from Confusion, Buddhist and Daoist teachings to complete Daming Renxiao Huanghou Quanshanshu (Book of Exhortation for Virtuous Deeds by the Empress Renxiao of the Great Ming). All of the volumes are of the wrapped-back binding style, stamped in red ink with the imperial square seal, abd protected by dark pink phoenix-patterned paper covers. This suggests that the imprint had been produced and collected by the Ming court.